On the UC Santa Barbara subreddit page, r/UCSantaBarbara, several users are voluntarily combating COVID-19 misinformation by removing posts and responding with evidence-based comments.
One of these volunteers is Britta Gustafson, a UCSB 2009 alumna and long-time moderator on the subreddit. Gustafson became a moderator on the subreddit in 2011 after responding to a callout for new moderators.
“Our goal as moderators is to try to keep the subreddit a supportive, friendly, pretty casual place … so, as moderators, one of the things we think is important is trying to keep things accurate,” Gustafson said.
According to Gustafson, the misinformation spread on the website is largely from users underplaying the effects of COVID-19.
“Usually, it’s people who really want the pandemic to not be a big deal. [People saying,] ‘COVID’s not that bad, almost everybody recovers from it,’ those sorts of things,” Gustafson said. “And, of course, a lot of people do recover and vaccines are quite protective, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a serious concern, especially for those who are more vulnerable in some way.”
“So it’s just been that kind of project among me and other moderators and many of the other participants in the subreddit to try to stick to the facts.”
Gustafson said that the subreddit has a set of rules regarding conduct, and when users report posts or comments that seem to be breaking any of the rules, moderators will review the report and act accordingly.
“Sometimes, for example, [the issue is] they took one statement out of context of all of the other scientific and cultural contexts and hammered home on that one thing. Like [with] the survival rate, completely ignoring long-COVID illness and disproportionate impact on people with different fundamentals. We consider that a form of misinformation,” Gustafson said.
When a moderator flags misinformation, they message the user to communicate the reason why their post was removed.
“[The response] really depends on what’s going on. Sometimes we will respond and say, ‘Hey, that’s not true. Here’s a link to XYZ. And also, we’ve removed your comment because it’s a form of misinformation and that breaks rule number seven or eight.’”
Gustafson offered several examples of users giving fact-based information on COVID-19 — including one post where a user gave an explanation on the impacts of the omicron variant and how it relates to remote learning and another post where a moderator refuted misinformation on the subreddit regarding deaths related to the omicron variant. Yet another post offered a FAQ list for COVID-19 at UCSB. All three posts offered sources and readings for information given.
Gustafson said it’s “frustrating” to see students post or comment false statements regarding COVID-19.
“Sometimes it’s kind of concerning or a little frustrating when students who one would hope are learning to research and really working on finding their sources say things like, ‘Oh, it’s just a cold,’” Gustafson said.
In regards to mitigating this misinformation spread, Gustafson said she wished the university would offer more resources to help students educate themselves on COVID-19.
“I’ve been looking for resources on what UC Santa Barbara is doing as an institution to try to encourage students to inform themselves according to the best available science, and I really haven’t found much,” Gustafson said.
“I contacted the UCSB Library to ask if they have any kinds of resources encouraging students to do research or teaching how to do research to really understand what’s happening with COVID, but unfortunately, they haven’t really had the capacity to develop that kind of material.”
Gustafson said having Q&A sessions for misconceptions around COVID-19 would be helpful, along with providing resources in the library.
“Whatever resources the university has to catch students who have questions and sort of foster discussion and research and conversation would just be really helpful.”
A version of this article appeared on p. 5 of the Jan. 27, 2022, print edition of the Daily Nexus.